BRUSSELS—Businesses and public relations professionals need to adapt to a new environment in which their “license to operate is under ongoing threat” and they are living in a constant state of “latent crisis,” Deutsche Post DHL chief communications officer Christof Ehrhart told attendees at the second EMEA region ThinkTank Live seminar last week.
Ehrhart was making the case the business today operates in a “post-modern age of hyper-transparency” resulting from the rise of digital and social media, and public relations people needed operate under a new paradigm: “We need to move beyond explaining the company to the world to explaining the world to the company. We need to move from selling finalized business decisions to supporting sustainable decision-making.”
Ehrhart was wrapping up a day long discussion of “Storytelling and Content Creation in an Age of Hyper-transparency” at the seminar, which preceded the eighth EMEA region SABRE Awards dinner at Brussels’ Event Brewery. Ehrhart was also recognized with a SABRE Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement at the evening’s ceremony.
He said he had started to form his views on digital and social media in 1996, while worked at Bertelsmann. At the time, he had suggested that the internet would change communications from a supply-driven discipline to a demand-driven discipline, increase the share of informative communication rather than promotional communication, and provide direct access to audiences instead of the use of traditional media channels—all of which has come to pass.
But he also predicted at the time that digital would be “only a revolution of tools, not of strategy.” That prediction, he says now, was incorrect.
Focusing on changes such as the widespread adoption of “triple bottom line” management and the ideas outlined in books such as Dov Siedman’s “How” (“success is not what we do but how we do it; we need to out-behave not out-compete”), Ehrhart says there is now “a need to prove the legitimacy of the organization on a day-by-day basis.”
One way Deutsche Post DHL does that is by focusing on “the question of the day” at a daily planning session attended by senior communicators and by ensuring that employees—a stakeholder group he says has been neglected by many communicators—get answers to that question.
“Employees don’t need glossy internal media,” he says. “What they need is the answer to the ‘question of the day,’ which is the question they have in the back of their mind when they drive to work having watched the television news or read the newspaper. They are wondering how the company is doing to address that question, and we want to make sure we are answering that question in our internal communications.”
Another approach involves “scenario planning,” which is a way of looking into the future and predicting the likely consequences of key decisions.
“You may not be able to predict with certainty, but neither can the lawyers or the finance people, but they are not afraid to make predictions. Corporate communicators must be prepared to do the same thing, and they should not be afraid to attach real percentages to the likelihood of different outcomes. It provides a different way of thinking about those issues.”
Such processes are important, Ehrhart says, but the most critical quality for corporate communicators moving forward will be empathy.
“Communicators need the ability to put themselves into the shoes of the person they are communicating with in order to make a meaningful connection with the expectations of that person,” Ehrhart told the ThinkTank Live audience. “I believe that communicators can be empathic and that organizations can be empathic.”